Top Ten 2009 (in no particular order)
and a wee bit more...

By Joel Okida

1. Works Progress Administration - WPA (Red Distribution)

With four lead singers and instrumental talent to spare, there is no Achilles heel that you can find here. Glen Phillips, Sean Watkins, and Luke Bulla teamed up with Sara Watkins, Benmont Tench, Greg Leisz, Pete Thomas, and Davey Faragher. They got together and played their assets off. No brag, just fact.

2. The Wailin' Jennys - Live at the Mauch Chunk Opera House (Red House)

All I can say is that these ladies can sing and play up a storm. Alone or in harmony, they get it done with finesse or gutsy vocal force. And as an add on, one Jenny, Heather Masse, also released an excellent solo CD, Bird Song (Red House), that adds even more variety than the already eclectic repertoire of the group effort.

3. Ramblin' Jack Elliot - A Stranger Here (Anti)

Perhaps his magnum opus with great song selection and his voice primed and self-assured. Producer Joe Henry got it right.

4. Rick Shea - Shelter Valley Blues (Tres Pescadores)

Long time southern California singer/songwriter/musician who has a resume of arresting songs and a habit of abetting almost every other singer or band of country or honky-tonk notoriety that rolls into town. This is a captivating piece of work and fits in nicely with the excellent recordings that he has generated over the years. Don't know if he is underrated or overlooked, but if he is, it's your fault, not his.

5. Todd Snider - The Excitement Plan (Yep Roc)

The barefoot poet returns offering more wit and insight in his inimitable way. Clever often cute, but clean and true.

6. Steve Earle - Townes (New West)

One would find the original singer-songwriter's versions hard to beat. This is also true in this tribute effort by the well known student of Townes Van Zandt. However, there's enough added Earle grit to the mix to make several tunes move in a mostly positive way and honor his mentor. Another related release, at least family-wise, and with the not-so-coincidental name of Justin Townes Earle attached to it, is Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot Records). It demonstrates the strong bloodline of talent, but in a different light and adds a little sheen to the gifted middle name and the paternal link.

7. The Unwanted - Music from the Atlantic Fringe (Compass Records)

Sligo-based group bridges old time songs of Appalachia with similar tunes of the Irish. It works well due to some smart arrangements and even smarter musicianship in the form of Cathy Jordan and Seamie O'Dowd from the legendary Celtic band, Dervish, and Rick Epping, a multi-instrumentalist from far off California. Leadbelly's , Out on the Western Plain starts it off and it is a listener's joyride from then on.

8. The Unthanks - Here's the Tender Coming (EMI Import)

The follow-up to The Bairns with the name change from Rachel Unthanks and the Winterset, now simplified yet inclusive. Rachel and sister, Becky, lead their mates across British traditional folk and into some stunning renderings of popular songs, yet leave their trademark stamp of heartfelt harmonies and distinctive solos intact.

9. Marissa Nadler - Little Hells (Kemado Records)

The delicately spectral Ms. Nadler sings dirges that take you down the longest, darkest paths to the sea and like the siren calling out from the mist, you must follow. Somehow you're happy to be this sad, worried and apologetic shoegazer in her musical presence.

10. King Wilkie presents - the Wilkie Family Singers (Casa Nueva Industries)

The purist bluegrass that King Wilkie originally stamped their name on becomes a mere take off point for this ambitious concept album about a fictional musical family and their foibles. It then travels into sunny balladry, gritty Americana and near Beatlesque orchestration. Featured cast includes Peter Rowan, David Bromberg, Abigail Washburn, John McEuen , Sam Parton (The Be Good Tanyas), and Robyn Hitchcock.

 

Lagniappe. A few extra recordings that fit in there somewhere.

Chris Smither - Time Stands Still (Signature Sounds)

Chris Smither has never made a bad record just as his guitar/foot-tapping style does not ever fail him in live performance. His wordplay is well-crafted and no one gives the sad-eyed blues tale its vocal due like Chris. So there's not a lot to diss about this recording either. Here he breathes life into each lyric, real life poetry intact, and uses the voice that burnishes the blues, heats it up, but goes down smooth.

Eva Cassidy - Songbird (Blix Street Records), 1998

Rediscovery of a rediscovered performer who died at 33. She left a significant body of recorded work (seven CDs as of 2003) much of it released posthumously (including this compilation CD), but left a potent mark on the interpretation of some folk, jazz, and pop standards. Autumn Leaves might have been her loveletter to the future.

Maggie MacInnes - A Fagail Mhiaghalaigh [Leaving Mingulay] (Marram Music)

From the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, this singer and Clàrsach player (Celtic harp) presents traditional songs of the island of Mingulay (also part of the Outer Hebrides). Sung in Gaelic and adorned with instrumental accompaniment by her dedicated guest musicians. The voice gets your full attention, natural yet compelling.

Monsters of Folk - Monsters of Folk (Shangri-la)

This is neither monstrous nor truly folk, but the players here might make a case for making some folk-like music with some colossal talent that doesn't offend or frighten anyone. The band is made up of Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Band), M. Ward (She & Him), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and the songs run the gamut from edgy-spiritual, country rock, folksie, to churning Americana. Should not scare off the adamantly acoustic.

Dent May - The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele (Paw Tracks)

Punchy pop confection with catchy melodies, but with a vocal range that sails along through some well-written tales of collegiate encounters. Revives the uke beyond the camp and corduroy.

Eilen Jewell - Sea of Tears (Signature Sounds)

Great songwriting fits in with a confident voice from this Boston performer who is more a rootsy folk-slinger who can slide over to the blues both sultry or rollin' and tumblin'. These are songs that allow for a soulful musician's very versatile voice.

Johnny Flynn - A Larum (Lost Highway) 2008

Heard this a year late, but anticipate more from this young Brit folk revivalist. Flynn, with his band the Sussex Wit, recorded this stateside in Seattle. Energetic with folk sensibilities, playfully witty yet philosophical in scope.

Sarah Jarosz - Song Up in Her Head (Sugarhill)

17-year old who sounds only a quarter note away from full womanhood (whatever that is) and then plays banjo or guitar like an old time vet.

Catie Curtis - Hello Stranger (Compass Records)

Different from her earlier recordings as the production is stripped down and simplified, which is good in that it replicates the live shows and let's her straightforward delivery shine. Nashville string trippers, Stuart Duncan, Alison Brown, and George Marinelli give her a can't lose edge, as do Darrell Scott and Mary Gauthier on vocals.

Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort: Live in Maidstone, 1970. (Neptune Music) DVD 2008

Historic footage of two seminal and influential English folk ensembles. Unfortunately short in length (46 mins., but 15 are interview w/ the director), but little footage is available from this era so the Brit folk enthusiast must gather these tidbit treasures in when they surface.

 

Top 22 Live Folk Shows of 2009 (in chronological order)

1.       Theresa Andersson - Hotel Café, 1/30

2.       Chris & Thomas- Coffee Gallery Backstage, 3/19

3.       Claire Lynch - Boulevard, 3/20

4.       Beausoleil - McCabe's, 4/4

5.       Chango Spasiuk - The Getty, 4/ 5 - Check out his 2009 release Pynandi-Los Descalzos (World Village)

6.       Gator-by-the-Bay - Spanish Landing Park, San Diego, 5/9-10

7.       Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, the Blasting Co. - The Echo, 6/23

8.       Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin, Emmy Lou Harris, Buddy Miller - Greek Theater, 6/24

9.       Väsen - Skirball, 7/23

10.    Baskery - Hotel Café, 8/16

11.    Iris Dement - McCabe's, 9/25

12.    Old Crow Medicine Show - John Anson Ford, 9/29

13.    Works Progress Administration - Club Largo, 10/5

14.    Todd Snider (interview, mini-concert) - Grammy Museum, 10/8

15.    Steve Earle - The Troubadour, 10/9

16.    Devil Makes 3- Amoeba Records, 10/13

17.    Boulder Acoustic Society - Coffee Gallery Backstage 10/20

18.    Tony Furtado - Center for Folk Music, 10/21

19.    Marissa Nadler - The Echo 10/29

20.    Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright III - Royce Hall, 11/13

21.    Crooked Still, King Wilkie - McCabe's, 11/22

22.    Po' Girl & Twilight Hotel- Center for Folk Music, 11/29